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As to museums, I’d often rather be outside, in nature’s own “place of study.” But I go, slowly filling my pockets of art-knowing, mostly glad that I’ve seen the Van Goghs, the Rembrandts, the Klees or whatever is on display in the city I am in.  Nothing quite prepared me, however for Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum [Art History.]

It’s been a long 4 weeks of traveling, many thousands of steps taken,  and the idea of another museum, a big one at that, judging from the mammoth exterior, was not shining brightly. As soon as I entered the mammoth rotunda however, the light of amazement blazed.  The cupola floats high above, glass set in an octagonal pattern at the peak, and more oval shaped windows in elaborate stucco work.  The broad marble staircase, with richly colored marble columns, leads up to a massive white marble sculpture of Theseus Fighting the Centaur by Antonio Canova standing over 11 feet tall.

Vienna KlimtTurning and climbing to the first floor you can stop and admire early Gustav Klimt work decorating the spandrels between the first order of arches, or proceed to either of the massive wings of the building, Dutch, Flemish and German to one side, Italian, Spanish and French to the other.


This is where the the disbelief begins.  The rooms are 30-40 feet high with richly colored walls and fabulous light wells.  Paintings are often hung in 3 tiers, entirely covering the viewable space.

Vienna,  Kunsthistorisches Gallery

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Gallery

–and not just any old paintings but from some of the most important masters of European art: Bruegel the Elder, just to begin with. One third of all his work is here. Or, Vermeer, Rubens, Tintoretto, Caravaggio…generous portions of all.

Studying Bruegel's "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent"

Studying Bruegel’s “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”

The rooms have comfortable sofas positioned for prolonged viewing, not the backless ottomans of so many museums. The floors seem to be the original parquet, and emit a satisfying squeaking as people walk along; the hushed silence of other museums made a bit more lived-in.

Even the coffee bar is a work of art, set on wonderful black and white floors, surrounded by gilded arches and muted light.

Coffee Bar in Kunsthistorisches

Coffee Bar in Kunsthistorisches

Own could spend every Friday afternoon for a year and only be ready to begin again.

For a great 360°, movable view, try this.

The collection is the result of hundreds of years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, back when the Netherlands — and its famous painters– were still in its orbit.  The building itself is from Franz Joseph I, the long reigning Emperor of Austria. [It was his nephew’s assassination, the designated heir to Franz Joseph, which triggered Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia, the Russians coming to their aid, and the Prussians to Austria’s that began WW I.]

As France’s Napoleon III commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann to demolish old Paris and create the grand, designed city we know today, so Franz Joseph had old Vienna cleared in both cases, following the 1848 uprisings all across Europe, to clear the warrened enclaves of the cities’ poor.  The old ring-walls came down, old neighborhoods were leveled, the Danube brought under control and the wide Ringstrasse we know today built.

The Kunsthistorisches and its twin, for natural history, across the Maria-Teresien Platz, were not opened to the public until 1891, after twenty years of construction and fourteen years of planning. Franz Joseph could not hold together the empire but he left some magnificent testimony to the beauty of human endeavor.

[It would please me mightily to know more about the materials and craftsmanship that went into the buildings.  Despite prolonged searching I haven’t found where the incredible marble came from, at what cost, over how many years, or anything about the stucco work or the guilds of craftsmen who must have produced it.  The Caravaggio’s and Rubens are breath-taking but so is the anonymous work of those who built the treasure house.

If you’re got one day in Vienna you could spend it all at the Kunsthistorisches and not regreat a single moment.

Related posts here, and here.

And more photos, here.